Leading Institutions: Financial Sustainability in the Age of Collaboration

If you're the pastor of a congregation, you spend significant time thinking about money. Your church maybe lucky to have an endowment to sustain the programs of the congregation...for now. But you’re not naïve to the trends; you can see that most of the mainline congregations in the United States are financially unsustainable. What does this mean for our future?

Every congregation we work with in CPR's consulting practice asks this question. Financial sustainability is the leading pain point. How do we maintain these buildings? How do we coordinate ministries without a centralized location? How do we pay for leaders? How do we engage younger generations when it’s clear they don’t want to come on the Sunday morning?

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Congregations are answering this question in different ways. Central Baptist Church in Norwich, CT is discerning selling its building and reinventing as a ”right-sized”congregation in a new location. University Christian Church in San Diego is exploring building a new multi-purpose building that can draw in commercial rental income.

Community Christian Church in Washington DC started a secular 501c3 to access grantfunds to sustain its justice ministries. Lyndale United Church of Christ joined with two other congregations to form the SpringHouse Ministry Center where they share a building and collaborate in community ministry. Leaders are getting creative about how to expand their impact in their communities in sustainable ways.

Inspiring this creativity is the recognition that we are institutional leaders guiding our congregations into an age of collaboration. We run churches that tell people “Come sit in our pews;” the people in our communities say, “Come meet us in our streets.” I was helped in understanding this shift when I saw this TED Talk by Clay Shirky. Many congregations are closed systems. They are systems that you join. You only join one and are expected to make a long-term commitment to its growth. But today those kinds of closed systems are dying from their own organizational rigidity and high maintenance costs. With new technologies, we can now organizing the same ministries with far less infrastructure. We can mobilize neighbors to feed the homeless through apps like NextDoor. We can rally a protest group through Facebook. We can start a book club through MeetUp. We don’t need congregations to coordinate our connections and communication anymore. That means people don’t have to spend a few hours on a Sunday sitting in a pew in exchange for community and connection. They can still live out their faith in the community without joining a church.

This creates a value crisis for us. Many people will respond, “But these people are not worshiping God. That is what Sunday is about.” But they would counter that they experience God many times during the week. Organ music is not essential to that connection.

A couple of weeks ago in conversation with Sue Phillips from OnBeing, she suggested that traditional congregations may be an old technology. It’s a provocative statement but one that I suspect may be true for many, though not all, congregations. Our form is simply outdated. I’ve often joked that when I joined the United Church of Christ as a new pastor, I was convinced that our growth strategy was to wait for boatloads of Germans to come over and fill our pews once again. We are deeply married to our form on gathering, failing to see the ways it no longer serves our function for existing.

And still, I am deeply committed to congregations as an expression of the embodiment of Christ in the world. I am not as committed to the forms we use to gather.I am far more interested in the creative ways we might amplify our new capacities for connecting people together in groups that support them in becoming more loving humans. I am interested in collaborating with community resources more broadly instead of trying to bring all of our ministries “in-house.” I am interested in taking responsibility for weaving the relational fabric of a community together without the need for form an institution to do it.

We are just at the beginning of understanding the possibilities for “being church” in this collaborative world. Our financial sustainability is tied to our courage to imagine new ways of organizing. That is the work that we are passionate about at the Center for Progressive Renewal. We hope to work with you.